NEW PARIS, Ohio – Some debris from a giant fire at a plastics recycling plant in Indiana contains asbestos, authorities warned Thursday, as firefighters inched closer to fully putting out the blaze.
The fire, which has been burning since Tuesday afternoon, sent black smoke over Richmond and surrounding cities in eastern Indiana and western Ohio. Officials were quick to warn that the smoke could contain cancer-causing toxins.
«I’m happy to say we’ve got it 90%, maybe a little more, and we hope to have the fire close to 98%, 99% sometime tonight, or if not tomorrow morning.» Richmond Fire Chief Tim Brown said Thursday at a news conference.
Crews with excavators and backhoes have pushed deeper into the plastics facility, which contained large amounts of bulk recycled and shredded plastic, according to city officials.
Residents in the area were instructed to stay away from anything that falls into residential yards, as debris recovered 1.5 miles from the fire was found to contain asbestosaccording to Jason Sewell, on-scene coordinator for the Environmental Protection Agency.
«Probably the worst thing you can do if you have debris in your yard … would be to cut and break that material,» Sewell said, as that would increase the risk of inhaling it.
«Please do not move debris at this time. Please refrain from mowing until we have further instructions on exterior cleanup,» Sewell added.
Asbestos is a known carcinogen. Exposure can cause various forms of mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining of the chest and abdomen, as well as lung and ovarian cancer.
The EPA said the results of the air sample tests would likely be known by Friday morning.
The fire has been sending snow-like debris into nearby towns, residents said.
“It just started falling like snow, it was just floating in the air and a bunch fell in the yard,” said Elizabeth Castellanos, who lives in New Paris, Ohio. «We didn’t actually know what it was until it hit the ground. And one of our neighbors said, ‘That’s debris from that fire,’ and then we noticed more and more starting to float in the air.»
Castellanos said she had planned to have a belated Easter celebration in her garden this weekend, but that is now in doubt.
«Not with all the debris lying around,» he said. “I mean, it will go on if it’s still lying down and no one can pick it up or touch it…or mow the grass. He’ll just keep spreading.»
Jo Fields, a food preparer who lives in the half-mile evacuation zone, said Thursday that she could see an improvement in the surrounding environment.
«I can breathe a little, it’s not too bad today,» Fields said. «You can see it: it’s lighter smoke, not as bad as before. This looks like a bonfire instead of black smoke.»
Fields, 60, said the sights, sounds and smells of Richmond earlier this week were nothing like he had experienced before. She chose to stay in the city to care for her loved ones with medical needs who cannot easily leave.
«It was the plastic, the chemicals, it was a taste I never want to have again,» he said. «I covered my face with my shirt.»
Dr. Vin Gupta, a pulmonologist at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington and a medical analyst for NBC News, urged residents near Richmond to trust their noses and act accordingly.
«If you smell it, you are probably breathing it in this case,» Gupta told MSNBC. «The kinds of chemicals that are released from burning plastic, you should be able to smell them.»
Public schools in Richmond, a city of about 35,700 about 70 miles east of Indianapolis, will be closed on friday for the third day in a row.
Food delivery man Cole Baxter, 26, lives near Williamsburg, Indiana, and said he stopped work early the day the fire started because of smoke.
Baxter said it has so far refused to work within a mile of the fire, but it can’t refuse all Richmond jobs.
«I really don’t have a choice, I can’t keep missing work,» he said.
Maggie Vespa and Selina Guevara reported from New Paris and David K. Li from New York City.